David Rohlfs has seen both sides and he likes where he’s at right now.
The University of Michigan senior right wing was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL 2003 Entry Draft before he ever stepped foot on the Michigan campus as a freshman. He started his college career at forward, switched to defense based on team need, and has successfully converted back to that forward position for most of his final two seasons as a Wolverine.
“I love forward,” said Rohlfs in a recent talk with Hockey’s Future. “It’s more fun going into the corner to do the hitting than it is to have the forward come and run you,” he continued with a smile.
“It’s a different game, much more open as a forward,” said Rohlfs. “When you’re a defenseman, you have to worry about who’s behind you. At forward, you can be a little more creative and have a better chance to make things happen in the offensive zone.”
The 6’4, 240-pound native of Northville, Michigan, had a modest seven-goal output as a freshman and then added another four points, including one goal, in the Wolverines’ post-season NCAA tourney appearance that season.
Partway through his sophomore season of 2004-05, Michigan coach Red Berenson occasionally moved Rohlfs back to the blue line due to injury situations that cropped up necessitating the move. Rohlfs performed so well in the new role that he was assigned the offseason task of preparing to be a full-time defenseman for his junior year of 2005-06.
“It was a challenge,” said Rohlfs of the preparation. “I spent the summer prior to the change working with David Harlock (a former Michigan defenseman with 212 NHL games experience). He helped me learn some of the tricks of the game. It was fun, though. The guy I was paired with, Mark Mitera (ANA), was in his freshman year and I was in my first year playing defense. So, we sort of got used to things together.”
“All the other defensemen helped me – Matt Hunwick, Jason Dest and Tim Cook,” said Rohlfs. “Billy Powers, the assistant coach in charge of the defense, was a great help. The coaches worked hard to try and instill a lot of confidence in me which helped. No one’s perfect and I made a few mistakes. But, they’d always put me right back out there on the next shift.”
“It’s nice to have a guy who can play either defense or forward,” said Michigan Associate Head Coach Mel Pearson about Rohlfs’ positional flexibility. “I think what happens when you play defense, you get a little more appreciation for the defensive side of the game. As he moves forward to his pro career, he’s going to be relied upon as a penalty killer and a defensive forward who can also give you some offense. It’s helped him understand the whole defensive aspect of the game, not just from the forward’s perspective only, which will make him more valuable as he moves on to the next level.”
Rohlfs echoed Pearson’s sentiments.
“The change opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of the game,” said Rohlfs. “When I played defense, I knew where I could dump the puck. As a forward now, I know what the opposing defenseman is thinking and trying to do. Some other subtle things helped, like knowing where a forward would force me when I was trying to make the first pass out of the zone. Now, I can apply pressure the same way knowing what the defenseman is feeling in that situation.
“I’m also able to forecheck better,” continued Rohlfs. “Having the ability to try and sneak by the defenseman is an advantage. At one time, I was that defenseman. Now, I know the tricks and what to look for from the defenseman. The same type of thing, knowing what the defenseman is thinking, helps me be more accountable in my own end as well.”
Michigan’s needs required Rohlfs to transition back to his original spot on right wing last season, his junior year. Rohlfs took off offensively at that point and, firmly planted at right wing, has had a sparkling start to the current season, his final one at Michigan before moving on to the professional ranks.
After about a third of the current season, Rohlfs has scored 10 goals and added 10 assists through 17 games while performing on the Wolverines top line with teammates T.J. Hensick (COL) and Kevin Porter (PHO). He sports a team-leading plus/minus rating of +13.
“You can’t say enough about the two guys I play with,” said Rohlfs. “T.J. and Kevin are just unbelievable players. Passes that you don’t even think are possible just come and find you. I usually just try to go down in the corner and get them the puck. They find me when I’m open and I try to put it away when I can. We complement each other well. I bring the size and they bring the skill. I’m also a little defensive-minded, too. Sometimes, they’re deep in the offensive zone trying to create and I’m back just in case the puck shoots free where I can pinch in and keep it in the zone. I can also just back up so that we’ve got three men back.”
Rohlfs’ game seems a perfect fit for the move to the professional ranks.
“David’s strength is obviously his size and his power,” said Pearson. “He’s a big kid and he uses his body to his advantage. He’s just in great physical shape. He’s about 240 pounds, but he can really skate. He’s got good leg strength and he’s a powerful skater. He’s having a career year here this season, knows his role and that helps him to do what he does well.”
“Obviously, I’m big and I’m strong,” agreed Rohlfs. “I like to use my speed and go to the net. I try and create space for my teammates out there and try to be physical. I like to go in the corners to cycle and have a defensive mindset as well. Some guys are pure offense. That’s not me. I was taught to always be accountable in your own end. So, I pride myself on my defense, too.”
Always looking for that extra edge to improve, Rohlfs is “currently working on my shot. You can always get a better shot. And, I’m working on my quickness, just being able to make a quicker first few steps in that five-foot race to the puck that comes up so often during a game.”
Pearson sees one more way in which Rohlfs is better prepared now than prior to his temporary sojourn on defense.
“When he played defense last year, that helped him with his puck touches,” said Pearson. “It gave him a chance to have a lot more puck touches than he would have had at forward. You handle the puck back there more than you would on the wing.”
Whether at defense or at forward, working the front of the net or playing back on the blue line, Rohlfs will exit his four-year career at the University of Michigan far more prepared for professional hockey than he ever imagined when he first showed up at the Ann Arbor campus nearly four years ago. He hopes to make the Edmonton Oilers the benefactor of that hard work and extra experience.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.